Leading article: Too soon to be optimistic on Syria

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The Independent Online

After so many failed attempts to pressurise the Syrian regime into ending the violence, Kofi Annan's success in persuading Bashar al-Assad to sign up to a six-point peace plan looks like real progress. The efforts of the United Nations and Arab League envoy are, of course, to be welcomed. But it would be a mistake to celebrate too soon.

Mr Annan's proposals are sensible ones, including a supervised ceasefire, inclusive political talks, and a daily two-hour "window" to allow aid agencies to reach stricken areas. The plan also comes with the backing of the UN Security Council – including both Russia and China – which all previous international efforts to force Damascus's hand manifestly have not. Perhaps most encouraging of all are the indications of support from opposition groups.

So far, so good. But then the caveats start. The most egregious is that the provisions leave Mr Assad himself in place, despite 12 months of the most appalling violence that has left more than 9,000 dead. Indeed, within hours of agreeing to Mr Annan's proposals, the Syrian President made a highly publicised visit to Baba Amr, the former rebel stronghold all but flattened by weeks of sustained bombardment. Television pictures of Mr Assad inspecting ruined buildings and, ostensibly, talking freely with residents, were the strongest possible statement that he will not go easily.

Then there are the logistical issues. Mr Annan's deal requires troops and heavy weapons to be withdrawn from Syrian cities. But the toothless Arab League mission at the start of the year – which saw tanks swiftly back on the streets once the monitors were gone – only emphasises the difficulties of ensuring compliance. Meanwhile, although more than 300 representatives of Syrian opposition groups met in Istanbul yesterday in an effort to reach a consensus, the rebel movement remains fractured and unpredictable.

The failure to rally the international community behind a call for President Assad to step down means that there is little option but to pursue the purely diplomatic solution proposed by Mr Annan. But it is, at the very best, only a baby-step towards peace.